Toward a bike-focused view of urban renewal

If you consider just how few of the world’s cities use bikes for any more than 1 or 2% of all trips, it is amazing that cycling gets as much press as it does. But it’s selling newspapers better than boobs on page three! Whether a particular news story arouses hope, fear, or vitriol, you can be sure the depth of sentiment will be out of proportion to any actual impact this bike craze is having, either on upon traffic flows, parking, economics, public health, head injuries, global warming, or whatever we think cycling might do, if it really caught on.

But let us not forget that those standing for and against bicycle transport, aren’t so concerned with what cycling is doing right now, as what it might do, if it goes on expanding. It is the specter of mass bicycle transport that gets us excited.

 

Driving ruffled feathers this way as well, back when it was the mode with less actual impact, than promise, before WW2. Back then, it was bikes getting populations to work, and cars making headlines—a reversal of the situation at present. Conservatives were warning of troubles ahead if everyone drove; progressives were trying to envision a car-centric future, asking, for instance, if it would lead to new kinds of buildings.

Historically, transportation modes that are new and exciting, in addition to stirring debate, have also stirred the imaginations of architects. In the late 19th century, excitement surrounding train travel left cities with stations so big, they dwarfed the cathedrals. During the art deco period, when ocean liners were the latest big thing, architects were designing streamlined white buildings with windows like portholes. Various aircraft, and even spacecraft, have inspired architecture.

No mode has inspired architects though, quite the way driving once did. From the late 1920s, until the late 1960s at least, so much architecture was inspired by the car that one observer, Jonathan Bell, had to say “carchitecture” provided architects with their principle means of being progressive.

It would take an outsider, Jane Jacobs, to raise doubts about that. Her central idea, that the most livable cities are designed for walkers, by walkers, underpins a set of concerns we now put under a broad banner term: “urbanism”. There has been consensus around the concept of urbanism for so long now, that most of its doctrines have had time to render down into mantras: fine grain permeable edges; high site coverage; the perimeter block; the TOD; place making; mixed use; eyes on the street. Walking is the first principle behind all these ingredients of the ideal urban village, as surely as driving is the first principle on which every mega mall is conceived, or as flying underpins airports, or as shipping underpins harbours.

I contend that cycling is not one of a family of concerns encompassed by the concept of urbanism, whose doctrines point back to the strengths and limitations of walking. Cycling has its own set of strengths and limitations. It doesn’t matter which is better, walking or cycling, or for that matter driving or public transport. It matters that cycling is generating enough excitement to soon be giving rise to its own planning doctrines, bicycle-centered urban morphologies, and new building types specific to cycling. This is what happens when creative people like architects see something new, that promises to impact the lifestyles of progressives such as themselves: they clamber to be the first to reflect it.

One of the constants of architectural history, that I think is predictive, is that new kinds of users adapt building types for their needs, before they invent new types from scratch. The Early Christians in Rome didn’t invent the basilica, they adapted basilicas that were already there. When the masses got cars in the fifties, they didn’t invent special new towers as Le Corbusier guessed they would do, but gathered buildings of a known type, the farmhouse, onto quarter acre sized lots. As a species we’re like hermit crabs in the way we find shelter.

If cyclists are hermit crabs, the most useful shells (although we don’t see it) are these urban renewal schemes, former docklands for instance, with inspired names like “Southbank, or “Southbank”, or better still, “Southbank”. We should also be excited by the new parks, condos and affordable housing developments that are being developed on former industrial land in our cities. There was a global phenomenon of master-planning all of these brownfields in the 80s with walking in mind, then throwing that lofty intention out of the window in the 2000s, and actually developing them with big buildings set well apart, in a way that makes walking feel weak, tiny and lonely. These places are soulless, on foot. They’re great on a bike.

Brownfields are doubly appealing to cyclists when you locate them on old maps of cities. To have originally had any value as industrial sites, they had to have once been connected either to a rail line or waterway. We need to take every opportunity to turn any easements like these into bike routes, not only so we can use them for leisure on weekends, but because they link up all the new and proposed urban renewal schemes, that create better conditions for cycling than walking. I’m imagining new bicycle oriented networks of housing, commercial space, and public buildings connected by roofed over bike paths, occupying space that our car dependent neighbours don’t object to us taking.

This Brownfield to Bikefield phenomenon, as I have called it, is already happening organically. It just needs formal recognition, and a little encouragement. Land flanking the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis has been rezoned for higher density development, with minimal parking. In all cities, rail trails enhance nearby property values. So-called “recreational” bike paths are being used more and more by commuters, while bike lanes we built for commuting have cars parked across them.

Turf wars with drivers, for equal rights on the road, or a designated piece of the road, face impossible odds. Most Danish and Dutch voters in the seventies could remember safe cycling conditions, and wanted them back. Voters elsewhere today, would sooner elect mandatory vegetarianism parties, than politicians promising to restrict car parking or driving. Faced with this, expedient and non-combative cyclists like me, would sooner relocate to a bike friendly part of our city, where ideally we might orient our lives around greenways, than stay and fight over streets that drivers would vote to keep for themselves, or even menace or kill to defend.

Anything that has been marginalized, the way cycling is marginalized, gets to flourish once it moves to the margins. We can learn from homosexual communities who colonize residual space. From the field of queer studies, we can learn from the concept of “queer space”. Queer Space describes a mental map homosexuals have of their city that outsiders aren’t privy to, that stitches residual spaces together, and gives them significance, within that community.

Cycle–space is like queer-space, though admittedly not so distinct, because the bicycling population is even more varied. We have varying aversions to risk or exertion, and moreover, widely varying motivations to cycle. Due to something called the observer expectancy effect, it’s hardly worth surveying cyclists to ascertain why they ride. You’re better off looking at what basic urges advertisers appeal to when selling us bikes. That exercise reveals some old Freudian chestnuts.

1. Eros. Slow cyclists thrusting their chests out, presenting themselves to likely mates. Cyclists with this motivation want busy shared zones in which to see and be seen.

2. Thanatos. Daredevil hipsters and mountain bike riders. They want to feel weightless and relatively faster than their surroundings.

3. Narcissus. Lycra clad roadies fascinated by their own heart-rates and wattage. They want long lonely stretches, uninterrupted, where they can reflect on their own bodies.

Cyclists aught to be granted these, and every other indulgence, lest the population of cyclists be limited to only one type. Driving succeeded because it accommodated drivers’ delusions, that they were sportsmen if they drove sports cars, or environmentalists if they drove combis, or cultured if they drove SAABs. Copenhagen has stultified its cycling with a uniform network of bike paths, that demotivates those seeking fitness or speed, and intimidates slow or feeble cyclists. We have to imagine cycling becoming exponentially more varied as more people cycle, and infinitely in the event the mode share hit 100%.

Because each of us creates our own cycle-space mental map of our city, its hard to say this spatial layer is welded to any other agenda. It’s nice that environmental groups, public health bodies, Marxists and others lend their support, but it would be fallacious to assume no cyclist likes air-conditioning, or smoking, or shopping at K-Mart, eating at Maccas, or flaunting their overpriced bikes. Some even like cars… just not right behind them.

The only thing that all-weather bicycle commuters all have in common, is a legitimate paranoia of cars. At night, in the rain, with their cell phone ringing for their attention, any driver is capable of becoming my killer. So there is one generalization we can make about all of our cycle-space cognitive maps: we all know our city’s non-vehicular routes, and how they link up, to get us home safely at night in the rain.

Bike-focused architecture and patterns of urbanism belong on those routes the way car washes belong on arterial roads. That’s not say you won’t see parking garages somewhere in bikeville, or that I can’t wash my bike at Car-Lovers. What I am saying is that certain that stretches of our cities—most likely those with industrial pasts—should be fostered as appealing places for cyclists to live, and be a big pain the arse for anyone who would rather drive.

So how will we build differently along these bicycle oriented tracts of our cities? I would suggest that any time we can secure government funding for an architectural expression of power, we grab it, and spend it. The Washington Bikestation cost over three million dollars, and only stores 80 bikes. We build extravagantly for the same reason the Romans built temples in all of their colonies, or Apple are building flagship glass stores, or countries build national galleries. We build these to assert the status of cycling.

In an age of bike mania, we should not be surprised to hear architects drawing analogies between their buildings and bikes. The architect of the Washington bike station claims its compressive arches, tied down with rods, are analogous to bike rims tied back to hubs using spokes.

 

to be continued…

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